Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Family Secret, Part III

The Secret Revealed

Fifteen years after the conversation I had with MD, in which she explained why I should never ask my grandfather about his childhood again, I was living on my own in New York and working in a large commercial bank, embarking on my career in finance.  During the intervening years both of my grandparent Darlings had died, my parents divorced, I graduated from college, and life continued apace.

One day I received a telephone call from my mother, MD, asking me to come and visit her the following weekend.  My Aunt Mary (my father's sister) was going to be staying with her, she said, and Mary had asked to see me during her visit.  Although MD was no longer married to my father, she maintained a friendship with Mary, who made a point of vocally taking MD's side in all matters, much to her brother's annoyance.

FD (as my father was known) and his sister had a difficult, competitive relationship growing up, and neither had much good to say about the other as adults.  When I was growing up they had little to do with each other, and when they did spend time together, their old rivalry would routinely (and rather tediously) flare up.  They didn't like each other.

I liked my Aunt Mary well enough, and I was pleased (and flattered) that she had asked to see me during her visit with my mother.  I looked forward to spending the weekend with the two of them.  After dinner on the day I arrived, MD, Aunt Mary and I sat in MD's living room, finishing our glasses of wine.  After a few minutes Mary turned to MD and pointedly asked, "Is now a good time?"  My mother drew in her breath, gave me a look, and answered, "Yes."

Mary turned to me and said, "I have something to tell you, Reggie, that I think you should know.  It's about your grandfather."

"What is it?" I asked.

"I've learned what happened.  I know why Grandfather left England after his father's death, and why he didn't stay on there, with his mother."

"Really?  What happened?" I asked, my heart racing.

Mary looked at me, took a sip from her wine glass, and began her story.

"Five or so years before your grandfather died, I asked him if he would once and for all explain to me why it was that he moved to this country after his father's death, and why he didn't stay with his mother or maintain a relationship with her after he came here.

"He told me that it was a painful and upsetting story, and that he couldn't bring himself to discuss it with me, but that he had put aside a set of papers that would 'explain everything.'  He said the papers were to be opened and read only after his death."

"Oh!" I said, "How exciting!"

"It was exciting," Mary responded.  "In fact, it was thrilling news to me because I had never known what happened.  Your grandparents never spoke of it, and I was forbidden to ask about it, even though I was always very curious to learn what had happened.

"A few years later, after Granny died and Grandfather was living in the hospital wing at Duncaster Hills, I asked him one afternoon where I could find the papers.  I said that I would respect his wishes to wait to read them until after he died, but that I wanted to be sure I knew where they were, so I could read them when the time came.  Much to my dismay, he said that he had changed his mind and destroyed them, because he thought it was best that the information they revealed die with him."

"Oh no!" I said, "How disappointing!"

"Well," Mary said, "it turns out he hadn't destroyed the papers after all."


"Yes, really.  After Grandfather died, I was going through his things and I found an old metal document box with a fat manila folder inside it with the words 'Only to be opened in the event of my death' on it in his perfect handwriting.  It was stuffed with letters, documents, and telegrams, and also had a typewritten account that Grandfather had written in the nineteen sixties.  Reading through it all I finally learned what happened after your great-grandfather died, what became of your great-grandmother, why your grandfather emigrated to this country, and what his relationship was with his mother after he left.  It explained everything!"

"But why do you suppose Grandfather told you he'd destroyed it, when in fact he hadn't?" MD asked Mary.

"I'm not quite sure," she said.  "He was very old when he told me that, already ninety, and he often got confused towards the end about people and events and what did and did not happen.  I suspect he thought he really had destroyed the papers."

"That must have been quite a surprise, then, when you found them," I said.

"You bet it was, Reggie.  I was very surprised to find them.  And I am very happy that I did, because now I know what happened."

"So, what happened?" I asked.

Mary took a deep breath.

"Well, in the first place your grandfather was not sent away.  His father's brother, your great-great-Uncle Percy, who was living in Massachusetts at the time, went over to England to get him, and rescued him from a truly desperate situation.  It turns out that your grandfather's mother was seriously disturbed—mentally ill, really—and she was as severe an alcoholic as her husband had been."

"You mean both of his parents were drunks?" I asked.

"Yes, Reggie.  But that's just the start of it.  Not only was she an alcoholic, but she was a gambler, too.  Within only a few years after your great-grandfather died she ran through almost everything she inherited.  Apparently she had been left reasonably well set up after he died.  She had enough assets and life insurance proceeds for her to be quite comfortable for the rest of her life.  But she squandered every penny of it by gambling it away, and within several years she was destitute."

"My God! Was Grandfather still living with her then?"

"No, thank goodness, he was already here in America.  After your great-grandfather died, Uncle Percy went to London, got your grandfather, and brought him back here to get him away from his mother."

"So, then it's not that Grandfather's mother sent him away, which is what I've always thought," I said, "but rather he was taken away from her to protect him from her!"

"That's exactly right, Reggie," MD said.

Mary nodded.

"After your great-grandmother had run through everything she had, she then borrowed substantial sums of money from her husband's former business associates, claiming that she was coming into nonexistent annuities.  But, of course, there were none, and she had no way of paying the money back.  She had spent all of it on gambling, going to the dog and horse tracks.

"By then Grandfather was married and starting out his life as a minister, and he didn't make the kind of money to be able to bail her out.  But Granny had some money of her own and she and Grandfather repaid his mother's debts—at least the ones they were aware of—at great sacrifice to their own financial well-being."

"How did they know about her debts?" I asked.

"Because your great-grandmother was constantly after him for money and to support her.  Also, some of the people she had borrowed from contacted him, sending him dunning letters when it was clear that she had duped them.  When you read through the materials you'll see the letters and telegrams, which he saved."

"Then what happened?"

"Over the years Grandfather made numerous trips back to England to straighten out her affairs.  He would set her up in an apartment or a boarding house with a modest allowance to live on, but as soon as he returned home she would spiral out of control again, sometime within just a few days, running up bills and creating havoc wherever she went.  At one point, after he could no longer find another place that would take her, he brought her over to America to live with him and Granny, with disastrous consequences.  It almost destroyed his marriage.  Granny had even packed her bags and said, 'Either she goes or I go!'  Needless to say, your great-grandmother was booked on the next available boat to Southampton."

"Do you remember her?" I asked.  "Do your remember that visit?"

"I was a little girl then, in the nineteen twenties, and I have only the vaguest memory of her.  She didn't stay with us for very long, no more than a couple of weeks.  My parents never spoke of her in front of us afterwards.  Not a single word."

By this point Aunt Mary, MD, and I all agreed that we could use drinks of our own, and stiff ones at that.  Cocktails safely in hand, we settled back down in the living room and Mary continued her story.

"Your great-grandmother remained unrepentant and difficult throughout all of this.  She bitterly blamed Grandfather for mistreating her, complaining to anyone who would listen to her.  She sent him dozens and dozens of letters and telegrams over the years accusing him of unspeakable cruelty, all the while constantly begging for more money.  But as soon as she could get her hands on any money she would spend it, drinking and gambling away.

"Grandfather even had her institutionalized several times, once in a place rather colorfully called the "Home for Indigent Gentle Ladies."  But after years of unsuccessfully trying to put her on solid ground he decided to sever all ties with her, in the early nineteen thirties.  He could no longer bear the emotional turmoil and financial burden of having anything to do with her.  He was a minister, after all, living on a modest income with a young family of his own to take care of, and it was during the Depression, no less."

"So what happened to her then?" I asked.

"She wound up living on the streets of London as a bag person, Reggie, where she begged and stole to get by.  We know this because Grandfather got letters from people who knew her, who had come across her begging for handouts.  She blamed Grandfather for everything.  The police also contacted him a couple of times after arresting her for making herself a public nuisance.  She disappeared altogether sometime before the War, never to be seen or heard from again.  She's likely buried in a pauper's grave, if even that."

I was stunned by what my aunt had told me.  "What a horrible, awful, shocking story," I said.  "It's even more incredible than I could have possibly imagined."

Both my aunt and mother agreed.  We also agreed that this tawdry saga explained everything that had been so mysterious to all of us for so many years.

"Did you know any of this before you read through the folder?" I asked my aunt.

"No.  Not a thing," she said.  "My parents shielded both me and your father from all of this.  We never knew any of it."

"Does FD know about this?"

"I sent him Xeroxes of everything a month or so ago, but I haven't heard anything from him yet."

"Really?  How odd," I said.

As I was to learn later, Dear Reader, it was even odder than I thought...

Next: The Secret Denied

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Family Secret, Part II

The Carefully Guarded Secret

As a boy in the 1960s I saw my Darling grandparents only rarely, at most once a year.  They lived in Michigan and we lived in Washington, D.C., and my interaction with them was largely confined to when they would come to Washington for an annual State Visit (as MD humorously referred to it) to spend several days with my family.  During their visits my grandparents were generally occupied with grown-up activities, and I didn't see all that much of them, mostly at breakfast and occasionally at dinner.  Other than during State Visits, communication between my grandparents and my family was conducted via the U.S. Postal Service.  Long distance telephone calls (referred to as "toll calls") were considered extravagant in those days and believed to be a far less preferable form of regular communication than letters.  It was only during my grandparents' yearly visits that I was able to spend any time speaking with them.

As the youngest of their seven grandchildren I never developed the personal relationships with my grandparents that my older siblings and cousins had.  By the time I came on the scene and was old enough to carry on a sentient conversation with my grandparents, my family had long since moved away from Michigan and my grandparents were becoming old.  They did not have the stamina or patience for investing much time in building more than a mildly engaged relationship with me, their youngest grandchild.

In other words, I didn't really know my grandparents all that well.  And I didn't know all that much about them, either, beyond basic resume material.  I knew that my grandmother came from a long line of distinguished, high-ranking career military men on her father's side of the family, and that her mother's family had owned newspapers in Upstate New York.  I also knew that my grandfather's father had been a successful solicitor, as lawyers are referred to in England, and had been a partner in a firm with offices in London and Ireland.  That is, until his untimely death in the freak accident in London when his head was knocked off, after which my grandfather was sent to live with relatives in America.  My grandparents met when they were both in graduate school in New York City, where my grandmother was getting her Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia and my grandfather was attending the Union Theological Seminary, preparing for a career in the ministry.  My grandparents lived much of their adult lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where they raised my father and his sister and where my grandfather led a large and robust Protestant congregation of parishioners that included many of the families of the founders of the U.S. automotive industry.

My grandparents were formal, reserved people by nature and were of a generation and class that truly believed young children, such as Reggie, should be seen and not heard.  It's not that they didn't care for me and my siblings when we were little, it's that the WASP customs of the times did not promote (or even consider it as an option) the closeness and intimacy encouraged between generations today.  I and my siblings referred to our more approachable grandmother Darling as "Granny," but we never referred to or addressed our grandfather Darling as anything other than "Grandfather."  He certainly wasn't someone I would ever have considered (or been encouraged to) address by a less formal name, such as "Grampy" or —God forbid—"GranPa."  There was nothing folksy about him.  I don't recall ever seeing him dressed in anything other than a jacket and a tie during his visits, and he often wore a suit.  But that wasn't all that unusual, since I am writing about a time forty to fifty years ago, when grownups still dressed like adults.

I looked forward to and enjoyed my grandparents' annual State Visits, which created quite a hubbub in our house, and I found their company stimulating.  I admit I preferred my grandmother's company to that of my grandfather, who intimidated me with his formidable intellect, generally stern demeanour, and a tendency to imperiousness.  He was not, as they say, a person who suffered fools gladly.

I also found my grandfather to be enigmatic and mysterious.  That's because his early life and background were a puzzle to me.  Whenever I asked him questions about his childhood in England and about his parents, both of which I was curious to learn more about, he would always change the subject.  He would never explain to me why it was that he left England and moved to America at the age of fourteen, never to return to his homeland, nor why he left his mother behind him.  It seemed unfathomable to me, and sad, that he had been separated from his mother after his father's tragic death and sent to live with relatives in a strange land, never to return.

What happened? I wondered.

During one of my grandparents' visits, when I was around nine or ten years old, I asked my mother, MD, if she knew why Grandfather Darling left England as a boy and why he wouldn't answer any of my questions about it.  She closed the door of the room we were in, sat me down next to her, and quietly explained to me that my grandfather's childhood had been an unhappy and emotionally turbulent one because his father had been a severe and reprobate alcoholic, and that my great-grandfather's decapitation, while horrific, was ultimately a blessing, as it rid his family of his damaging presence.  She then said that I should never ask my grandfather about his childhood again, as the subject was painful for him and my questioning him about it brought back too many unhappy memories.

"But why didn't he live with his mother, like I do, Mummy?  Why did he move to America when he was a boy and his mother was still alive?" I asked.

"I honestly don't know why, Reggie," MD responded. "It's a mystery to me, too."

"Does Daddy know?"

"No.  He doesn't know, either," she said.

It wasn't until fifteen years later, Dear Reader, shortly after my grandfather died, that I finally learned the answers to my questions . . .

Next: The Secret Revealed

photographs by Boy Fenwick

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pulling Dandelions

I have a confession: I'm not much of a gardener.

What a lovely, evil flower . . .

I like having a handsome landscape, but I'm not all that hepped up about being the one who actually does the gardening.  I prefer to leave that to others who are better equipped.

But there's one thing in the garden I genuinely enjoy doing.  And that's pulling dandelions.

Every spring, in April and May, I spend several weekends in a row weeding our lawns of dandelions.  It is highly satisfying.

. . . given to multiplying alarmingly

When we bought Darlington we were astonished by the legions of dandelions that sprung up on the property our first spring there.  The lawns seemed to be nothing but dandelions.  There were thousands of them poking their saucy, sunny heads up, smirking at us.

Better catch this one soon, before it opens
again, having gone to seed

I spent weeks and weeks digging them up, and Boy spent an equivalent amount of time spraying them with herbicide, along with the disgusting plantain that also defiled our lawns.

Within a couple of years we had tamed the dandelion beast.  Now it is only a matter of maintenance.  But living in the country, as we do, surrounded by farms and fields, the beast requires vigilance.

This afternoon's bounty

Even though we have a gardener and a gardener's assistant to help us with such chores, I like to get in on the action.  Last weekend I pulled up several bushels of dandelions.  I expect to spend the better part of this weekend doing the same.  I'm rather stiff after all that bending and stooping, I admit.  Stiff, yes, and happy.

There is little that is more satisfying than getting a good purchase on the root of a dandelion with one's weeding tool, yanking it up from the soil, and tossing the intruder in the waiting basket.

Take that!

Oh no!

And now, Dear Reader, I'm off to finish the second installment of "The Family Secret". . .

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Family Secret . . .

Doesn't every family have one?

I think they do.  After all these years I've lived on this planet observing what goes on in people's lives, I have come to the conclusion that every family has at least one deep and dark secret, lurking back a generation or two, that they would just assume keep buried.  I firmly believe there is no such thing as a family that hasn't been touched by scandal or the brush of shame over the years, or who doesn't have something in its past that its members would just as soon . . . forget.  I've heard too many tales of family scandals told by friends over the years, revealed late at night over too many drinks and packs of cigarettes, when the teller's guard was down, and their cards fluttered to the table, one by one.

My family secret is a strange and sad tale of squandered fortune, deceit, madness, frustration, shame, squalor, concealment, shocked discovery, and enraged denial.  It is a story that took place over many decades, and was for many decades more buried under a cloak of deafening silence that was only broken after the persons involved were all dead.  And the details of the secret were discovered only by sheer accident.  For it was intended that the story would never be known beyond the immediate circle who populated its sorry tale.  In the end, though, it didn't work out that way, because someone kept—and then forgot to destroy—the evidence.

I only learned of my family's secret when I was in my mid twenties.  But when I finally heard the story, and read the letters and documents that irrefutably corroborated it, all the pieces fell in place, and what had been a mystery to me for so much of my life finally made sense to me.  "Ah, so that's what happened!"  I remember saying to myself.  "Now I understand . . . "

It's really quite a story.

It begins with a piece that I wrote several years ago, titled the Old Millhillian Rugby Football Club, about my grandfather Darling.  As I wrote in that essay, my grandfather had attended Mill Hill, a (then) all-boys English public school in London, in 1903-1904, before being sent off at the age of fourteen to Massachusetts to live with relatives and attend the Mount Herman School for Boys, where his uncle was on the staff, having married the daughter of the school's founder, Dwight Moody.

The impetus for sending my grandfather to live in America was ostensibly that his father had recently been killed in a gruesome accident when riding in a hansom cab in London, when his head was supposedly knocked off by a lamppost while he was leaning out of the carriage's window.  My grandfather's mother was apparently so devastated by the loss of her husband that she became incapable of continuing to raise my grandfather and his sister, and so my grandfather was shipped off to Massachusetts and my great aunt, only a year or two older than her brother, was sent to Paris, never to return.

And that's where the story supposedly ended.

But it didn't, Dear Reader.  No, that is only the story's beginning.  There's quite a bit more to it, which I look forward to sharing with you in my next installment in this sad and shocking tale.

Do come back for it, won't you please?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ink Pots for Posies

This past weekend we noticed that what little muscari we still have scattered about the lawns and tucked along the hedges at Darlington House was in its final stages of blooming.  A decade or more ago, before a series of landscape improvements, grading projects, and removal of decrepit and long-neglected garden beds, we had bumper crops of muscari on our property that had wondrously naturalized just about everywhere.  Today the hanger-on bulbs continue to sprout only here and there, and are a treasured reminder of our former bounty.

Our collection of vases and vessels for arranging flowers and branches has over the years become extensive and varied enough that we always seem to have the right container or group of containers for every need.  Yet with so few muscari, it was clear we needed a new option.  Long gone are the days when Boy could quickly gather dozens and dozens of stems to pack several English porcelain coffee cans.

Saturday, while exploring the current offerings at Red Chair Antiques, a wonderful shop in Hudson, New York, Boy spotted a shelf displaying, among other bits of stoneware, seven little antique stoneware ink bottles, each measuring about 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches tall and each with a narrow neck and opening.  Choosing among them was not an option; all seven were immediately wrapped by the charming clerk and accompanied us back to Darlington.

While the diminutive pots make an instant sculptural collection within Boy's stash of larger stoneware bottles, pots, and crocks, they are the ideal size and design to cradle several stems—or just one stem—of muscari, one pot alone, or in groupings.  They are perfect, too, for displaying the flowers of other little spring bulbs, such as galanthus (already finished in our lawns) or scilla (of which we have probably thousands continuously naturalizing through the grass).

I am hopeful that when we arrive at the house this coming weekend we will discover other diminutive spring-blooming flowers to fill our new old little vessels.

photographs by Boy Fenwick

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Easter Tree of Darlington

I'm not one for overdoing it when it comes to decorating Darlington House for Easter.  But I do like to observe the most important High Holy Day of the Christian church with at least a little bit of this and that about the house.

This year we've decorated a little vintage tree with Easter-themed wooden ornaments.  Subtle, and discreet.  We bought the tree ten or so years ago from an antiques dealer in a nearby town who has since closed his shop.  The tree dates from the 1960s, and we had to pry it out of the dealer, who didn't want to sell it.  We wore him down over several months until he —finally—let us buy it from him.  I'm so happy that he did!

Happy Easter, Dear Reader.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pompey Out and About: Steven Gambrel's Book Signing Party

This past Thursday I was supposed to attend a book signing party for Steven Gambrel's hot-off-the-press Time & Place monograph at Archivia Book's jewel of a bookstore on upper Lexington Avenue.

Steven Gambrel's Time & Place
published by Abrams

However, my supposedly day job at the Investment Bank where I work expanded to include that evening as well (as it often does), which precluded my attending the party.  I reluctantly informed Boy Fenwick that I would not be able to join him and his assistant designer, Nancie Peterson, that evening.  So Boy and Nancie took Pompey with them to the party in my stead.

The author inscribing his new book . . .

Boy, Nancie, and I have admired Steven's work for years.  Although I have never met Mr. Gambrel, he and Boy have a passing acquaintance, and he has always been congenial when he and Boy have come across each other.  Boy and Nancie had a lovely time speaking with Steven and his dashing partner at the party.

. . . to Pompey!

Steven, being a fellow dog fancier, graciously invited Pompey, ancient as he is, on a date with his dog, Dash, who appears throughout the book.

Dash, Steven Gambrel's labradoodle

Not only that, but Steven even inscribed Boy's copy of the book to Pompey, who was tickled pink and highly flattered by such an inscription, and has been walking on clouds ever since at the prospect of one day meeting Dash.

Pompey is all aflutter!

I wish that I had been able to join Boy, Nancie, and Pompey that evening.  It sounds to have been an entertaining and convivial gathering, indeed.

Steven Gambrel, Nancie Peterson, and Pompey
having a lovely time at the book signing party

Photographs by Boy Fenwick
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